Yonatan Cohen

A Letter to Isaac

On Rosh Hashanah, many years ago, Abraham took his son, his only son, the one whom he loved, as we read in the Torah, to the place that God had shown him.

The image of a father binding his son, his own son, a mere child, is an extremely terrifying one. And yet despite the horror, for a moment, it must also be treated and analyzed as a poetic expression of the profound desire of parents to attach their children to the altars of their beliefs, their values, and their prayers.

Rosh Hashanah is the symbolic time in which parents attempt to connect and bind their children to ideals inherited from the past.

Indeed, it is a time in which generations past project themselves forward into the future, by forcibly attaching themselves to generations yet to come.

Abraham and Isaac, we are told, traveled for three days before they reached the mountain. It took three days to reach that place of binding, where father and son, were held symbolically by a chord – bound and tied. At the end of those three days, the Torah describes: “va’yelchu shneiham yachadav” – they went up the mountain together, they were of a single mindset. For a moment generations past and generations yet to come were united as one.

The Torah gives the parent and the child three days to reach that place of ultimate binding, of like-mindedness, of shared purpose.

My son and I also walk this path. He is too young, and I am too inexperienced to know, that each day we are in the midst of the binding process. Each day offers us the potential that one day we may walk together or, God forbid, apart.

But on this Rosh Hashanah, and because of the blessed urgency that this time bestows, I would like to imagine that he and I only have three days. That like Abraham, I have only three days to impart to my son, to the Isaacs of our Jewish future, a sense of connection to my faith, to our tradition, that will bind him, that will bind them, in years yet to come.

For a moment, join in me in imagining that we had only three days to impart our beliefs to future generations. What would we include in a three day curriculum that we could trust to ensure the viability of our people and our faith?

This morning, I share with my son, with our Isaacs, as though I was Abraham, three messages; three fundamental Jewish lessons, each symbolically corresponding to a day of the three days of binding.

My dear son Isaac,

In my life I had come to learn three basic principles. These principles have guided and dictated my actions in the best and worst of times.

Isaac, if there are only three things that I can bequeath to you, then I urge you to consider these as your unique inheritance.

These are my three principles (and I intend to explain each):

1. Faith is Faithfulness.

2. Gratitude is Great.

3. Doing Good is Godly.

On the first day we would discuss: Faith is faithfulness.

In your life Isaac, you will experience a number of flitting, yet transcendent, moments.   In those moments you will feel as though the very gates of heaven have opened wide, as though the mouth of God speaks directly to you.

Those moments, Isaac, will forcibly command their presence upon you. You will be overcome by feelings of love and awe (ahavah ve’yiraah), and a sense of direction will fill your heart and your soul, and clarity will fall upon your eyes and your mind, and a path towards the future will show itself to you.

Many describe those moments as life changing events. But sadly, in the majority of cases, life changing moments become sheer memories. In the majority of cases, life changing moments don’t change a thing at all.

Isaac, I urge you, have faith in those moments. Believe that those moments are real.

Yet beyond sheer faith, I urge you to develop faithfulness to those moments. As one Jewish theologian put it: “The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response” (R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Man Is Not Alone,” p. 165).

Our tradition teaches us that it is not enough to be changed by a moment, we must also live that change in every single moment of our lives.

All my life Isaac I remained faithful to God’s original call, to set forth on my path. Indeed, God’s call of “Lech lecha” remained a constant command for me on each day of my life. And so too, in years from now, our descendants will remain committed and loyal to the Divine Voice commanding them from the Mountain Top, and they too, will always recall the words “I am the Lord Your God.”

“Faith is faithfulness. Loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response.”

On the second day we would discuss: Gratitude is great.

Isaac, if there is one word I wish to teach you, and perhaps you are still too young now to fully understand, that word would be “todah.” I would teach you a word of thanksgiving. To say, to praise, to pray, ‘thank you.’

One rabbinic luminary pointed out our tradition’s unique understanding of gratitude as it is expressed in our blessings and prayers (Rav Soloveitchik, “Harerei Kedem,” Vol. 2, 179d).

Each and every time we give thanks to God we begin by focusing on a particular thing or event, but sure enough, our attention shifts and moves towards a greater, profounder, acknowledgment of the multitude of things for which our gratitude is owed.

Three examples:

In our central prayer, the Amidah, we say three times each day: “Modim anchanu Lach” – we give thanks to God for very specific deeds, that He shields and protects us and that He shows kindness and goodness to us, daily. The blessing however widens its scope midway and includes all things: “Ve’al Kulam.” We conclude by giving thanks to God for everything.

Similarly, in “Birkat HaMazon,” the Grace after the Meal, we begin by noting our specific thanks and gratitude. “Nodeh lecha” thank you God for the good land that gifts us this nourishment. But here too we quickly widen the scope and shift towards the general. We conclude the blessing by saying “Ve’al ha’kol” for everything God, we owe You gratitude.

Finally, when we are spared from life-threatening situations, we recite the blessing “HaGomel” to express our gratitude for God’s grace and goodness. Yet here too, our tradition guides us to recognize goodness beyond this particular occasion. Here too we say, “sh’gmalani kol tuv,” that God had rewarded us with all goodness, and not just on this particular occasion.

Isaac, gratitude is great.

Gratitude begins in the present tense.  But if it remains in the present tense then it will also always remain incomplete.  True religious gratitude transcends time; it challenges us to take note of all that is good in our lives today, and to recognize that the good of today is forever indebted to the good of the past. 

Isaac, our descendents will be known throughout the world as “Yehudim” (Jews).  Yehudah or Yehudi, which means, of Judah or Jewish, comes from the same root as the word Todah – to give thanks, to express gratitude.  We are the ‘thankful ones.’ To be a Jew is nothing more and nothing less than to lead a life of gratitude – one that is simultaneously focused on the present tense and rooted in constant awareness of multiple goods bequeathed by the past.

My son, I would like to believe that if you remain grateful, then you will also remain a Jew. A true sense of gratitude will always lead you to the goodness of the past, and the past, I hope, will always lead you back home.

And on the third and final day we would discuss: Doing Good is Godly.

Isaac, my beloved Isaac, in moments of doubt, a single spiritual question vexes my heart. Awake at night, I wonder, how will we ever know that we have come to know the same God?

Posed differently – How can a personal and intimate relationship with God be conveyed from parent to child, from one generation to another? Ultimately, I wonder, how will we know that the God of Isaac is the same God of Abraham?

Generations from now, mystics and philosophers will offer their answers, but none will be as simple as the one revealed in the Torah.

Isaac, our tradition teaches that God had “singled Abraham out” so that Abraham would instruct his descendents “to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right” –

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְ־הֹוָ־ה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

The Torah is very clear; the way of God is good, and doing good is Godly (the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Be Within, Stay Above,” edited by Tzvi Freeman).

Isaac, each and every time you confront the world with צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּטdeeds that are just and righteous, each and every time you reject “the callousness of indifference and the prudence of impartiality,” indeed, each and every time you call your faith into account by assuming personal responsibility for the world that surrounds you…I pray that in each of those times you will sense the grandeur of the Divine reverberating in your actions, the Voice of the Holy One echoing in your own words, the presence of God enacting goodness with you (see R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Prophets,” pp. xxii and xxvi).

Isaac, in each and every one of those times, know and recognize, that it is the grandeur, it is the voice, it is the presence of your father’s God. It is the God of Abraham and our God is one.

Doing good is Godly and doing Godly is the closest we come to knowing God.

Vayelchu shneheym yachdav.

At the end of those three days, the three days of binding, the Torah describes how a parent and child went up the mountain together. They were of a single mindset. For a moment, generations past and generations yet to come were united as one.

And so, on this day, on this Rosh Hashanah, like parents of generations long past, I symbolically bind you Isaac, my child, my beloved, my only one, to the altar of my beliefs, my values, my prayers.

On this Rosh Hashanah, as in the past, I bind you Isaac, with a chord of faith, and a string of gratitude, and a knot of goodness.

And as I tie and as I knot, I softly whisper in your ear- Isaac,

Faith is faithfulness

Gratitude is great

Doing good is Godly.

And in my heart of hearts, I can hear you say: Abba Hineni, father Abraham, here I am.

About the Author
Yonatan Cohen serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a thriving Orthodox community in Berkeley, CA. He is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and North America as well as a lecturer for the Wexner Foundation.